The infamous posthumous albums, where a producer or team are charged with ‘exploiting’ the archives of an artists back catalogue. Exploiting being the chosen word of many overzealous fans (see my person opinion about these types of projects: ) Producer L.A Reid who worked with Jackson at various points for certain songs asked the Jackson estate to listen to everything in the Michael Jackson archive originally for fun. He made an empty promise to get a team together, however when he realised he had selected enough tracks that could be used for potential polishing LA Reid realised he had to follow through with his proposal.
(This is part review, part analysis, and part history and feature – this is a warning. Also this was updated on the 27th of June, the paragraph on Love Never Felt So Good was amended to accommodate new information, and has been updated since to accommodate and correct)
Whilst 6 out of 8 tracks have leaked online in some form or another since 2000, some fans have been angered by the song selection because of this fact. Truth is, the songs that leaked are poor sound quality and nobody even knew for sure if they were the final versions worked on by Jackson. However at least Epic have been transparent and whilst tepid about the release they are giving it full support, and the only reason I can see why is because from the outset it looked promising. The originals would be included as well as updated tracks. There could be no legitmate claim that these songs don’t feature Jackson’s voice. The odd truth is that Jackson’s voice on ‘Michael’ whilst at times does not always sound naturally like him, does not mean it isn’t. The issue with that release is the vast amount of vocal processing, over production and auto tune applied for whatever bizarre reason. Another thing about that release, is the controversial ‘Cascio’ tracks, and lastly, a lot of the songs were recorded in the last 10 years of his life. He was older, voices change. (Side note: People think Jackson’s voice is even higher than it is because certain songs and the entirety of ‘Bad’ has been pitched up due to intentional playback speed changes to make the album a little shorter and a little faster paced. In fact the opposite is true, 2000 Watts from Invincible is slowed down making Jackson’s voice sound oddly low.
Part 1 (The new mixes)
Disc 1 features all the ‘contemporized’ tracks, and disc 2 features them in their original ‘final’ form. The final form be it an almost complete take on the song, a demo, a mix of the two. Where as the previous posthumous collection, the coolly and hostile received ‘Michael’ focussed on tweaking original tracks Jackson was said to be working on in his final years and tuning them up based on notes. This collection focuses more on rediscovering lost treasures, and making an album that can stand independtly based on what these Jackson treasures may sound as if reinterpretated by modern productions and producers.
Opening with the Paula Anka and Michael Jackson written ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ as reproduced by John McClain, it lifts the song up to new heights by way of Motown drum samples, disco tinged Off The Wall styling, thunderous orchestration. However as good as it is considering, there is a few small issues, that I have since understood why they exist. For example the clapping and rhythm at the second verse starts to fall out of time considerably. The official JacksonVevo page uploaded a montage video to accompany the song, yet the music is noticeably different. These clapping mistakes are no longer present, there are more instruments and the mix is considerably different. I’m speculating that the album featured an unfinished mix to rush the album out, or an earlier mix in an accidental error, yet I suspect that it is the former. Listen to the newer mix below:
‘Chicago’, retitled to avoid having too many songs with ‘Love’ in the title, is an interesting song. Unlike most songs, there isn’t a sea of Michael Jackson on the chorus. Instead it features Jackson’s trademark soft croon juxtaposed with his abrasive shout on the chorus. The Timbaland production is noticeably Timbaland, but remains reserved enough to not be overbearing and in your face. Instead Jackson is still the focus. The 808 trap filled drum sounds are egged with classic synth, slow attack bass. It merges the original vocals with flesh production well. Some have accused the song of using over the top auto-tune, yet I think they are unfounded accusations.
‘Loving You’ starts with piano and choked tambourines. The chorus is exceptionally hook driven, with an exceptionally complimentary RnB bass line. Something about this song really works, whether it is the lofi drum fills, the overloading stabs of orchestra, the omni-chord harp tones or something other. I think it is because out of all the tracks this feels least like an attempt to add new colours to a faded painting. The groove is solid, the vocals shine whilst not being unhuman (despite some minor tweaks I suspect with melodyne… I’ll explain later why I think this.) It took what is frankly an originally poor Jackson song and transformed it into a shining beauty, that hints of Thriller and Bad but without trying to emulate them.
The first striking thing about ‘A Place with No Name’ 2014 is, it sounds like the riff from Leave Me Alone. However when you look passed the initial reaction, the sparse production by StarGate works well in stark contrast with the original. It features a smattering of Jackson pastiche, yet unlike the previous attempt at a posthumous album, it remains distinct in its own way. What is most interesting, is how removed from the source material this song is. The America song ‘A Horse With No Name’ was reworked by Jackson to become ‘A Place with No Name’ in 1997, and now it has become a R&B/Dance tune of its own stance. The rework is also noticeably longer by 30 seconds.
‘Slave to the Rhythm’ aims to update the original intention by lifting the opening orchestration and adding layers, with buried elements and clinking chains. It has a pitter patter of clicking, sub sine wave bass, Timbaland stutter triangle synths, arpeggios, and piano clinks. It is the most blatant Timbaland produced track, and thus a huge dud. With such a great vocal take to really create something blitzing and genre defining, it feels flimsy and instead of dancing, Jackson is tripping to the rhythm. The ending is also clunky and sudden.
‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are?’ leaked previously in one incarnation a short while back. The new Timbaland produced version replaces the leaked versions breakbeat drum pattern with 808 claps, popcorn synths, Roland Orchestral Synths. Nether the less, the song remains something of a confusing situation. Elements of it work wonderfully, yet Jackson lifted and reused for other superior songs. Other elements work about as much as rocket scientist in a surgery theatre. Lines like ‘Saying that he’d buy her things while sexually abusing her’ are awkwardly rushed, a little too direct, and in a post 1993 world the general theme of the song feels like there is an elephant in the room.
‘Blue Gangsta’ has been re-interpreted from its original New Orleans Brass Hip Hop style, to a Bond villain theme. Starting with orchestration full legato, the harmony vocals melt wonderfully with the orchestra. A paranoid Jackson sings in that gruff voice under the romantic strings, as it then goes full Timbaland. Styled with 808 hip hop with wild triplet hi hats that are common for his current production. It places a lot of importance on the central vocal again and backing vocals, mixing elements of the original brass with sass pianos, string sections. It almost acts like Smooth Criminal for the 2010’s, but with more menace. A great, if at first, bewildering reinterpretation. It finishes on a jazzy flourish before going to final track of the album. The chorus could be a bit more intense, as the verses are incredible.
‘Xscape’ is the only song that is reinvented by the original producer, yet oddly enough it is arguably the worst one on the album. It feels like a far more obvious remix. It has some merits, the brass is very reminiscent of Jackson’s Jam, but then should this album just be a continued wink to things that have happened in the past? It suffers from the lack of attention and build, relying on similar ‘music to acapella’ ploys which plagued the Immortal project. The difference is that Immortal was an actual remix album, whereas Xscape aims to go beyond that.
Love Never Felt So Good leaked almost identically to this version after the release of the first posthumous release. This version is the piano and vocal demo recorded by Anka and Jackson, with all flubbed lyrics, beat boxing and side comments included. Whilst in the body of Jackson’s work, the song is not particularly special, it is nice to simply hear that great vocal, the finger snap, the double tracking and a simple swinging crooning piano underneath. It is amazing though to consider how the track has been transformed into two exceptionally groovy versions (the second one the duet with Timberlake that is at the end of the album).
Chicago original is a subdued 80s throwback recorded in…. 1999. It is weird how it sounds both of the time and not. Produced by Cory Rooney (of Destiny’s Child fame) the kick is reminiscent of the 90s dance scene, the pace of 90s RnB, the instrumentation of 1987. Coincidentally it has a Liberian Girl feel, with chimes aplenty. The acoustic guitar that comes in and out makes for an interesting addition. One of the few songs where both the original and remix contain elements to enjoy and pick between. Allegedly another version was previously worked upon when the song was still called ‘She Was Loving Me’ by Cory Rooney that might get a release as a B Side; one can only hope.
Loving You the original obviously hasn’t been looked after too well, the track climbs in pitch and the original tape is warping, but that makes it more interesting than the original probably was. Originally from the Bad sessions it features the faux piano bass sound that is familiar from tracks like Another Part of Me. Now in the review of the new version, I explained that I think melodyne and tweaks have been employed. Simply because the tape is running either fast or slow at points they probably had to pitch correct it but not severely.
A Place with No Name borrows largely from the original inspiration track. With a country, dusty guitar, shuffle hats and shakers, there is not much more to add. The vocal is still great, like the remix, like the leak. Along with Chicago it is one of the tracks where you could easily flip-flop between the two for preference as they both have elements that work excellent.
Slave to the Rhythm in original form is a shy timid New Jack Swing attempt by LA Reid. The lyricism promises far more than the music offers. It sounds like a poor demo for Who Is It or something else from the Dangerous album. The drums are particularly grating. It is annoying that both the original and contemporary fail to deliver what the vocal performance does. Oddly, I guess I actually like the Tricky Remix that was leaked, as slightly cheesy as it is.
‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are?’ original version is a third version, different to the leak and the new version. Like most of the Original Versions, this is a song very much of its time period. The one thing that Jackson’s most popular material has is a timeless quality. Whilst some song used outdated sounds and elements at times, the overall package is delivered in a time capsule made of titanium. This version however features distinctly an early nineties sound. There’s little dancing in this version, the vocals are understated and the overall arrangement is not quite in place. The heavily gated reverb drums is a little overbearing, but there is a lot of potential. If you see it in the context of when it was made, then it is decent, but not mind blowing.
Blue Gansta also previously leaked (noticing a theme yet?) and yet another slightly different version from the leak. This version is far ‘dryer’ and has elements removed and others added. However some of the most interesting aspects still remain. The accordion, horn swells, flamenco piano trills are still in place. The leak however features addition percussion, string sections, and a sample of Ennio Moricone’s The Good the Bad and The Ugly theme.
Xscape also previously leaked, in fact one of the oldest and most notorious leaks from any artist ever. This leak upset Jackson so much that he cancelled all plans for its release and then later the same year his house was raided and that cancelled most plans too. When I first heard this many years ago, it stood out massively and a lingering question about why it was never released on the Invincible album was my immediate response. On reflection, the song matches equally to some of the best tracks from that album, yet might have been engulfed and cluttered it in equal measure with similar styled industrial pop songs. Generally the song fits with Jackson’s later darker material, however the moderate tempo makes it not quite hit the peak that you are waiting for. Annoyingly the best part of the track is the extended outro, with the pizzicato signature Jackson guitar, vocal ticks and groove really comes into its own. In fact the structure of the song is the thing that lets it down most. The sonic quality is brilliant, the sounds are carefully crafted and the whimsical ‘Sometimes I feel like I’ve got to get away’ from the unknown female vocalist make it a daring pop track, yet the grooviest part of the song should not take 4 and a half minutes to be unveiled. Darkchild, producer of both the original and new version, has on both occassions failed to get the structure and overall groove of the song to work until the latest part. The groove at the end of the original doesn’t even feel like it couldn’t be built upon. I can imagine thousands of places for it to go.
Love Never Felt so Good with Justin Timberlake, produced by Timbaland and J-Roc. Out of the three versions that are included on the album, this one is probably the best. If you are a Jackson but not Timberlake fan, swallow your prejudice and pre conceived notions at the door, because the truth is that it is best. The production is far smoother and appropriate than the Branca version. The biggest criticism should be the unnecessary and irrelevant addition of Justin saying ‘Dance’ and possibly the sampling of Working Day and Night (however, it is better than hashing vocal parts together ala ‘Michael’).
Side note – there is a slight hiccup where an edit in the original piano and vocal track is noticeable at about 2:16 and the mix has slight distortions that are a minor annoyance, but in comparison to the opener it is nowhere near as bad.)
BONUS DVD CONTENT
The bonus disc is a DVD featuring a self congratulatory interview session with some of the faces and producers – and apparently part time paranormal experts – that helped curate the new album. Generally there is some tit bit interview followed by a section where LA Reid will play the original version at which point half assed bemused looks are exchanged between Reid and Timbaland. He then proceeds to blast the new tracks to an overwhelming reception by Timbaland. The most interesting segment is the part with duo Stargate proceed to actually unveil what they have done to the track and solo elements. Unfortunately this is not repeated for any other track, original or contemporary, which is a huge shame. More importantly the origins of the songs are vaguely discussed and there is even some ever usual incorrect information floated about when songs were recorded and for what project. LA Reid himself claims Slave to the Rhythm was recorded for the Dangerous album, when the truth is it was a song recorded before the album but never treated as a contender or even part of the whole song set that made up the recording process for the album.
The truth is that this project, for what it is worth is exceedingly good. It is cannon in one sense, but it can be viewed upon as a good demonstration of how Jackson’s vocals can be optimised because he would deliver an incredibly solid performance, whether for lead or backing vocals. The production is mostly slick and modern, remaining discrete. It also flows consistently as a first half, and the originals show the variety and attempts to make slightly different styles. What is particularly obvious is the originals are rather unremarkable and mostly not worth the slack (apart from perhaps Xscape and Horse with No Name). The new versions group together strong vocal performances, some decent lyrics and intiuative lively production. In the bonus DVD documentary LA Reid compliments Timbaland for making Loving You’s vocal performance be enveloped in a way that it gains energy and passion, and it is absolutely true throughout. The biggest flaws are the unnerving consistent deliberation that Jackson may not have chosen this direction in particular and that perhaps Slave to the Rhythm and Xscape do not quite work as well. Xscape especially feels more remix intended, and Slave never quite finds its home, sitting shy. Which is a shame, as it is vocally the most powerful track and lyrically ok, even if the metaphorical ‘rhythm’ the female in question is someone thrusted in your face repeatedly. The leaked Tricky remix finds a lot more bite and whilst being a bit dated in sound and not quite right, it does manage to follow the vocals in their gusto.
In comparison to the previous posthumous collection it excels and may be one of the best posthumous releases in history. ‘Michael’ as an album was completely flawed, firstly the song choices were risky and if anything not the best material to demonstrate unfinished or almost finished works. This album however feels, complete. Whilst nobody will truly know what Jackson had intended, people always forget that he was not the absolute master all of the time and that the people who helped him for his records are more influential in ways than Jackson himself. Thriller, Off the Wall and Bad all have a particularly Quincy Jones and Rod Temporton touch to them, both helping to chisel and try things. Sometimes their decisions were wrong, more often than not they were right. Xscape works because the team and the project feels like a dedicated passionate release. It isn’t flimsy. The track selection if careful, surprising and refreshing. We get the sense that this is the best of a bad situation, but at the same it is exceedingly good, especially for a posthumous release made up of essentially fragments from history. Could this be the greatest posthumous collection of new work? Time may tell.